Resident Evil 2 Remake Review: Goodness is the Enemy of Greatness
I've dearly loved Resident Evil since its birth, which is why I'm sad to say that I don't think it will ever again be as special as it once was. Don't get me wrong, Resident Evil 2 Remake is a good game. At times, and in certain respects, it even borders on greatness. Alas, it's conformed to the modern era of gaming in one of the worst ways: by dumbing itself down in the name of accessibility.
Note: Minor spoilers ahead.
The basic plot of Resident Evil 2 needs no introduction, but I'll give you one anyway: rookie cop and tough-as-nails college girl stumble into the wrong town at the wrong time, rescue a kid, and escape with their lives, but they never date even though they seem to be perfect for each other.
Taking place roughly two months after Resident Evil and concurrently with Resident Evil 3, the second game in the series unfolds as Umbrella scientist William Birkin enters the final stages of his research on a newer, even deadlier form of the virus that decimated the S.T.A.R.S. team in July of 1998. By the time Leon and Claire arrive in town, the G-virus has already had days to spread through the local population.
The narrative is a simple one, which is fine. Horror stories often are. A tale doesn't need to twist and turn a dozen times to be compelling, but the simpler the story, the more it's up to the characters to move it along in an interesting way.
Leon and Claire aren't badly written or badly acted, they're just not superb either. Even Sherry Birkin is less interesting now than she was 20 years ago. Back then, she was a spunky, bull-headed kid that tried her best to be brave (and useful) even though she was scared.
Sherry 2.0 is timid and quiet, rarely makes eye contact, and never actually helps Claire — she's just a plain old NPC that needs protecting. That's okay in a sense — a real 12-year-old probably would be more terrified than heroic — but we don't come to Resident Evil 2 for realism. We need a reason to really root for the characters, and most of the cast just doesn't give us one this time around.
Ada Wong (who I've never liked) is worse than ever. The original Ada was mean and manipulative, but at least she kind of had a personality. Now, she's overwhelmingly critical and sarcastic to the point that I couldn't summon even a shred of understanding when Leon falls for her anyway.
You probably know at least one of these people in real life — the ones who are constantly aloof and make fun of everyone else in a pathetic attempt to cover up their own insecurities. Granted, she is a spy, and she's been using Leon from the beginning, but there was just no need to make her as abrasive as she is. She's pretty annoying.
The screenshot above is an apt metaphor for how I felt upon starting up Resident Evil 2 for the first time. Like Claire standing apprehensively before the gates of the Raccoon City Orphanage, I too was wary. The door in front of me promised happiness and wonder, but I suspected the reality would be less pleasant.
Atmospherically, the game starts strong. The city is dark, rain is coming down in buckets, and the zombies around you outnumber your bullets by about a thousand to one. The first hour is perfectly paced; it's a slow, butt-clenching trek through a devastated metropolis, punctuated with short, frantic fights.
The state of the city streets and the police station makes one thing perfectly clear: you have to run whenever possible. Ammo is wonderfully scarce (though healing items are far too common), and even regular zombies are not to be trifled with. Also, you will pee yourself the first time you have to sneak right past a licker with scant inches to spare.
But the meticulously crafted horror doesn't last. Resident Evil 6 starts the same way, luring (I might even say "tricking") you into thinking it will be an agonizingly slow, terror-ridden fight for survival from beginning to end. In reality, the back 20 hours of Resident Evil 6 are a pure action/shooting experience that bears little resemblance to its first two.
Resident Evil 2 doesn't pull this bait-and-switch to the same extent, but it does do it, and it's disappointing. Aside from a few decent boss fights and a handful of blessedly lamentably rare encounters with lickers, the scariness definitely drops off after you leave the police station. The environments get a little too clean and bright, enemies seem less threatening to characters that you like but don't love, and there are some balancing issues that gradually replace tension with frustration.
In short, normal mode is too easy, and hard mode is too hard. Normal mode auto-saves every ten seconds and practically drowns you in healing items, whereas hard mode doesn't give you enough supplies (this coming from someone who believes that the golden rule of survival horror is to starve the player of supplies).
I'm really quite good at horror games, and at managing scarce resources, but I had to restart the game on normal after trying to play it on hard. I simply didn't have enough ammo to defeat the first boss, even though I'd hoarded what I'd found and had barely used any of it.
The balance problems were a persistent source of mild sadness, but once I encountered the first puzzle, I knew I had to start lowering my expectations if I wanted to enjoy the rest of the game.
The first "puzzle" is a set of three 3-digit combination locks that you don't discover until after you're literally given the full and complete answers to all three of them in a cutscene. What's more, nearly all of the "puzzles" are 3-digit locks with only a few possibilities for each digit, meaning you can just sit there and brute force them within a few minutes.
The puzzle solutions do change on your second run (and in some cases, they even hit the difficulty sweet spot), but by then it doesn't matter. You've already seen most of what the game has to offer.
Horror games absolutely have to nail their first impressions by taking full advantage of the fact that everything is new and unfamiliar. I can't imagine a (good) reason for Capcom to lead with insultingly easy puzzle configurations and save the vastly more interesting ones for later.
This brings me to the crux of why I'm moderately disappointed by Resident Evil 2: it's made primarily for people with fantastically short attention spans who feel uncomfortable when they encounter adversity.
Die twice in a row (only twice!) and the game begins to constantly nag you about switching to easy mode, which features automatic headshots and passive health regeneration. Furthermore, only one puzzle in the entire game is even moderately challenging the first time through, and some of them don't make any sense even by Resident Evil standards (here referring to Sherry being "trapped" in a room by a literal sheet of cardboard held in place by a single piece of tape).
While I've trashed Resident Evil 2 a lot so far, I want to reiterate that it's not a bad game. It's just nowhere near as good as it should have been, and that bothers me.
It does have some real gameplay strengths, like snappy controls, immensely satisfying weapons, tough but fair close combat mechanics, and top-notch enemy design. Its better elements just don't shine quite brightly enough to completely make up for its failure to fully commit to being a horror game.
Resident Evil 2 hedges its bets for fear of turning off the instant gratification crowd, and the whole experience is cheapened as a result. Its normal mode is too forgiving to be consistently interesting, and its hard mode feels more like a half-assed appeasement offering to the hardcore demographic than a carefully balanced difficulty setting.
No matter how saddened I might be by Resident Evil 2's gameplay, I can't say it isn't gorgeous. It's the first game that my current PC (built in 2017) can't handle on maximum settings.
Even high-res screenshots don't do it justice; you really need to see the game in motion to appreciate how pretty it is. Indeed, its stunning visuals do a lot to maintain tension when the mechanics fail to do so.
All of the environments are beautiful, even if only half of them are interesting. Character models move fluidly and look great, although I can't tell if Leon and Claire both look really young or if I'm just getting old. Water and dirt are both used to great effect; both protagonists have several different models that get progressively filthier throughout the game, and by the end of Claire's campaign, I could practically smell her.
I normally don't care too much about video game graphics one way or the other, but Resident Evil 2 looks so good that it would be unfair not to give credit where it's due.
Sound & Music
Much like its gameplay, the audio in Resident Evil 2 is generally good, but it rarely took my breath away. Leon and Claire both talk like dorks at times, but that's not a bad thing — it's actually rather endearing. Nonetheless, neither of them ever sound scared or even particularly worried, which makes you feel less threatened (and that is a bad thing).
The soundtrack is pretty standard fare for a horror game. There's plenty of dissonance, and a lot of staccato strings and minor keys, which is well and good, it's just never all that striking or memorable.
The gunshots and monster sounds, though — those are fantastic. Nearly every weapon is loud, sharp, and deep, especially with surround sound or good headphones.
There isn't a great deal of shooting throughout each 4-hour campaign — Resident Evil 2 is much less of an action game than 5 and 6 were — so you don't get desensitized to your own gunfire. When Birkin lets loose a convincingly mighty roar, and you answer it with a flurry of Magnum rounds that you've been saving for exactly this kind of emergency, the deafening chaos of battle is, in a word, wonderful.
My current rig houses a GTX 1080, an i-7700 CPU, a solid-state drive, and 32GB of RAM. It was enough to comfortably run Resident Evil 2 on high settings, but there are two tiers of quality above that: "crazy high" and "ridiculously high." My framerate was always in the high 60s or low 70s, even with lots of stuff happening at once. I experienced no freezing, no crashing, and no bugs (unless giant mutant cockroaches count).
Resident Evil 2's graphics settings menu does something I hope to see more of in future games: it shows you the projected impact that tweaking each option will have on your VRAM. Knowing that I have 8GB to play with, I was able to crank up the effects that were most important to me while knowing exactly what my memory budget was.
The level of graphical fidelity that Resident Evil 2 is capable of attaining is frankly nuts. I imagine that you'd need the beefiest video card currently available to get there, or two flagship cards from the previous generation.
+ Absolutely, stunningly, phenomenally gorgeous graphics
+ Some enemies are deeply terrifying
+ Great weapons and satisfying combat
– Puzzles are insultingly easy
– Poorly balanced difficulty options
– Inconsistent atmosphere is scary at times but uninspired at others
I liked Resident Evil 2, I just didn't love it — and I really wanted to. Perhaps it's my own fault for setting my expectations so high, but I don't think so. Capcom could have, and should have, given us a more challenging, more consistently balanced and thoroughly frightening remake of a timeless classic.
The grandchild of one of the original zombie horror masterpieces is worth playing, it's just not worth dying for.
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